"Elvis: The Final Years"
by Jerry Hopkins
Elvis Presley's final years were full of paradox. He was the rebellious
king of rock & roll who returned again and again in the Seventies to play
Las Vegas, home to such "establishment" entertainers as Sammy Davis Jr. and
Frank Sinatra. He crisscrossed the nation on grueling tours, setting box-
office records for performances that became increasingly sloppy and
listless. He was often unprepared at recording sessions, and even when it
was apparent on disc, everything RCA released scaled the charts. With the
help of manager Colonel Tom Parker's finely tuned Presley machine, Elvis
projected an image of the courteous Southern gentleman -- always answering
reporters' questions with a "yes, sir" or "no, ma'am," and lavishing
expensive gifts of cars and cash on strangers -- but often abusing his aides
and bodyguards and friends.
Most telling of all, Elvis was the most popular entertainer in the world,
a figure of constant attention who came off as the boy next door while his
life grew increasingly bizarre. He was fascinated by guns, and in his last
years rarely went anywhere without carrying one. He became a nocturnal
creature who would rent an amusement park outside Memphis so he could ride
the roller coaster at night -- alone except for his entourage. He covered
hotel-room windows with aluminum foil to keep daylight out. His appetite for
-- and dependence on -- uppers and downers and painkillers was incredible.
Elvis didn't play out his final years alone. There were other actors in
the drama. The Colonel. His father, Vernon, and his daughter, Lisa Marie.
The women -- his former wife, Priscilla, and his girlfriends Linda Thompson
and Ginger Alden. His bodyguards, Red and Sonny West, and his aides, Joe
Esposito and Charlie Hodge. And his doctor, George Nichopoulos.
But by 1974, Elvis was a very sick man. And it seemed that none of the
people he gathered around him could do anything to stop him from slipping
What follows is excerpted from Elvis: the Final Years by Jerry Hopkins,
published in 1980 by St. Martin's Press. - The Ed.
September 1974 - January 1975
It was a bad time for Elvis. Everything seemed to be coming apart. His
father and his stepmother, Dee, separated after ten years. "Vernon treated
me like a child; he kept me in a cage," Dee said.
It was a familiar theme. Priscilla had felt suffocated and restricted,
too. Now, as Dee was packing up and leaving Vernon's house nearby, Elvis
watched as his friend Linda Thompson moved her things out of Graceland.
Their relationship was an emotional one, and there would be flare-ups for
years to come.
Elvis had also lost his longtime piano player, David Briggs, who was being
paid $3000 a week by Elvis but wanted to return to Nashville's recording
Elvis' health plummeted as his weight ballooned. Just how much weight he
had put on, and how quickly, became apparent when he arrived at the
University of Maryland on September 27th. So great was the change, some of
the boys in the band had trouble recognizing him.
Tony Brown, who had taken Briggs' place in the backup band, remembered
watching Elvis arrive. "He fell out of the limousine to his knees," said
Brown. "People jumped to help and he pushed them away, like, 'Don't help
me!' He always did that when he fell. He walked onstage and held onto the
mike for the first thirty minutes like it was a post. Everybody was scared."
Guitarist John Wilkinson was standing a few feet away from Elvis. "The
lights went down," he recalled, "and Elvis came up the stairs. He was all
gut. He was slurring. He was so fucked up. It was obvious he was drugged,
that there was something terribly wrong with his body. It was so bad, the
words to the songs were barely intelligible. He could barely get through the
introductions. We were in a state of shock. I remember crying. He cut the
show short, yet it seemed like it went on forever."
The rest of the tour was, as Brown put it, "uphill." For three nights, in
Detroit, South Bend and St. Paul, Elvis seemed in control. His eyes were
bright and the shows were energetic, giving hope to those around him. Back
in Detroit for another show, he slipped again.
"I watched him in his dressing room, just draped over a chair, unable to
move," said Wilkinson. "So often I thought, 'Boss, why don't you just cancel
this tour and take a year off?' I mentioned something once in a guarded
moment. He patted me on the back and said, 'It'll be alright. Don't worry
The cities rolled by, all of them very much alike, all noisy and somewhat
numbing. Dayton, Wichita, San Antonio, Abilene... Limousines, hotel rooms,
huge auditoriums and the chartered Playboy jet that took him from town to
town became the only environments he knew.
After that, Elvis didn't work for five months.
It didn't get any better in 1975. On January 8th, Elvis celebrated his
fortieth birthday. He worried that he was "getting up there," and that hurt.
Twenty days later, Elvis entered the hospital for, among other problems,
an enlarged colon. At least that's what the press was told. And it was true.
But it was also true that Elvis was there for another detoxification. This,
too, would be confirmed years later by Dr. Nick [George Nichopoulos]. At the
time, however, Nichopoulos merely stated that Elvis had been sick for
several days but was reluctant to go to the hospital. He said it had
required several more days of talking before Elvis submitted to the
physician's wishes, during which time a suite was held for him on the
Baptist Hospital's eighteenth floor.
Finally, on January 28th at five a.m., the telephone rang at the nurse's
station. Dr. Nick said he was leaving Graceland with Elvis and would be
arriving in fifteen minutes. Elvis, wearing navy blue pajamas and a few
days' beard, showed up with his father, Joe Esposito, Linda Thompson and a
The enlarged colon and drug detoxification were two serious problems
treated during his three-week stay. Another more serious problem -- one
never discussed publicly -- showed up in a liver biopsy. Later, Elvis would
joke about the long needle that was stuck into his side to extract a sample
of liver tissue, but the findings weren't at all amusing. There was severe
damage to the organ, and it was clear to attending physicians that the
probable cause was drug abuse.
The colon problem was caused by Elvis' poor eating habits, Dr. Nick said.
Elvis loved fried foods and sugar, and needed an almost complete change in
As usual, Elvis was cheerful and obedient, promising to mend his ways. Of
course, he didn't.
December 1975 - January 1976
This was the first time Elvis ever worked during the winter holidays. In
the 1960s, it was always written into his contract that he was not available
until after January 8th, his birthday. Why did he break tradition? And why
did he agree to perform on New Year's Eve in the huge Silver Dome in
Pontiac, Michigan, which seated 80,000, when he knew it would be too big to
give his fans the show they paid to see? The answer, of course, was money.
Elvis needed money, desperately. His bank accounts were empty, and he had
borrowed money against future earnings, using Graceland for collateral. As
difficult as it was to believe, Elvis was broke.
Every way except economically, the show was a disaster. The sounds of
"Thus Spake Zarathustra" echoed through the gigantic hall. As Elvis entered,
he looked confused. Where were his sidemen? Where were his singers? Finally,
he spotted them below him, on another level. He was surprised, then angry.
Why hadn't anyone told him he'd have to sing alone?
In the middle of the show, his pants ripped, splitting at the seams
because of his extra poundage.
The temperature made it worse. It was so cold, the members of the band
were playing in their overcoats. "The trumpet players' lips were so cold
they could barely blow their horns," said John Wilkinson. "It was so cold
our strings kept changing key. Oh, we were glad to get out of there."
On the way home, Elvis exploded, cursing and blaming everyone he could
think of for the show. So black was his mood, Linda Thompson just sat there
and let it happen. Normally, she would have made a face at him or fed him
some gooey sweet and cooed him back to serenity with baby talk.
A few days later, a story in the entertainment trade papers reported that
the concert grossed $800,000, believed to be a world's record for a single
night by a single artist, beating out the Beatles' take at Shea Stadium in
1964. Elvis kept about half of it.
The Colonel pulled off another coup at about the same time, selling to RCA
Records the rights to all material recorded by Elvis through 1972.
Obviously, this represented a huge body of product -- more than 350 songs,
nearly fifty albums' worth, almost all of it still in the catalog and
selling slowly but steadily. One RCA executive claimed that the Colonel's
motivation for the deal was "greed, pure and simple," and said the record
company went for it only because it figured it'd get the money back, and the
big price tag was worth paying to keep Elvis and the Colonel happy.
The price? A nice, round $6 million.
February 1976 - May 1976
Elvis was losing control.
He hadn't recorded any new material in almost nine months, and with RCA
wishing to maintain its three-album-per-year release schedule, new songs
were sorely needed. Elvis ignored pleas to go to Nashville or Hollywood to
record and didn't want to go back to Stax in Memphis, either. So, in the
first week of February 1976, RCA began moving $200,000 worth of recording
equipment into Elvis' Graceland mansion. If Mohammed wouldn't go to the
mountain, then the mountain would go to Mohammed.
Elvis' road band was flown in from Los Angeles, and several top Nashville
studio men -- David Briggs piano, Bobby Emmons on electric piano and Norbert
Putnam on bass -- were called. Everyone was waiting for Elvis to come
downstairs and sing.
Felton Jarvis was producing the sessions as usual, and he kept moving
nervously back and forth between the den and the big RCA mobile truck parked
outside. The jokes never stopped, but by midnight, everyone was getting
anxious. Elvis sent word that he was sick and had a doctor in attendance.
Red and Sonny West and Dave Hebler explained Elvis' behavior another way. In
their book, Elvis: What Happened?, they tell of a sinister story about a
plan Elvis had to kill the city's top narcotics dealers. They contend this
is what kept Elvis holed up in his bedroom.
Red said Elvis summoned him to his room, where he had a huge arsenal of
automatic weapons, pistols, rifles and rockets strewn all over the floor.
Elvis handed Red a list of names and a packet of photographs and implied
that they'd been given to him by the Memphis police. "Elvis had it all
planned," Red wrote. "He wanted myself and Dave Hebler and Dick Grob, the
former cop [who had gone to work for Elvis some years earlier], to go out
and lure them, and he said he was going to kill them."
Elvis told Red and Dave that he would use the recording sessions as his
cover. They'd set up the target, he'd sneak out of the house the back way,
make the hit and return swiftly to Graceland, where he would then go
downstairs and sing. Red shook his head and said it was pretty heavy.
"Hell," said Elvis, "the cops want them."
Somehow, Elvis was diverted, chemically or conversationally. His fantasy
was set aside. And the recording session finally began.
In seven days, Elvis sang a dozen songs. It wasn't easy getting even that
much out of him. Ten of the songs appeared on the album From Elvis Presley
Boulevard. The lyrics, as a lot, were sad, and Elvis' performance, though
adequate, clearly showed his failing strength and health.
Elvis' moods continued to swing wildly. When he first saw the recording
setup in his den, he said, "Let's leave it, I like it better this way than
with furniture." A few days later, he stood in the den facing the huge
playback speakers, his eyes glazed, pointing a shotgun. "The sound's no
fuckin' good in those things!" he croaked. "I'm gonna kill the motherfuckers
and put 'em out of my misery." He cocked the shotgun and took unsteady aim.
Some of the musicians got the gun away from him, and a few minutes later the
session was cancelled. Some nights, he seemed remote, disconnected. Other
nights he failed to show up at all. Finally, on February 9th, RCA packed up
its gear and returned to Nashville, happy to have what it had.
March 1977 - April 1977
Elvis' small fleet of jets was aimed at many of the cities where his
oldest and most loyal constituency lived -- Phoenix, Amarillo, Norman,
Abilene and Austin. This was the territory he traveled in the Fifties when
he drove from city to city with Scotty Moore and Bill Black ("the Blue Moon
Boys") to appear in noisy, crowded honky-tonks and on the backs of flatbed
trucks. This is where he was a young star on the "Louisiana Hayride" radio
show. It was this region -- the panhandle of West Texas, Arkansas, north
Louisiana -- that gave little Sun Records an entire galaxy of stars besides
Elvis: Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Conway Twitty, Charlie Rich, Jerry Lee
Lewis and Johnny Cash.
That was 1955. Now it was 1977. More than twenty years had passed and, to
the people who lived in the region, Elvis had come to epitomize the American
dream. They, too, were -- or had been -- poor. Generally, they were working-
class people, and they wished to get out of their box, to live the fantasy
life that Elvis had come to represent. He was what every woman wanted and
what every man wished to be. It didn't even matter that he had grown fat.
At first, the tour was just like the others. Some shows were good, some
were fair and some were miserable. Elvis did his best, but nowadays his best
was much less than it was when he was younger. At some concerts, Elvis
performed like an old man. At times it seemed he had only the loosest
control of his voice and muscle coordination. He dropped lyrics, mumbled
introductions and very nearly stumbled around the stage.
On March 31st, following a so-so show in Alexandria, Louisiana, Elvis'
private plane took him to Baton Rouge for a concert at Louisiana State
University. As was customary, the show started before he left the hotel for
the coliseum. All the usual acts performed: the Sweet Inspirations first,
then J.D. Sumner and his youthful Stamps, and finally Jackie Kahane, with
the predictable jokes. Elvis usually arrived during the intermission that
followed the comedian's monologue. Tonight he didn't.
There was chaos backstage. Elvis' hotel room was called.
A half-hour passed. There were more calls. Finally, it was decided to
cancel the rest of the show, to say that Elvis was too sick to go on, that
he was under a doctor's care and was being flown back to Memphis to be
It wasn't untrue. Dr. Nick returned with Elvis to Memphis on the "Lisa
Marie." Within hours of arriving, Elvis checked himself into a two-room
suite on the sixteenth floor of the Baptist Hospital. This time, Maurice
Elliott announced to the press that Elvis was being treated for
That wasn't entirely untrue, either. Elvis had been taking so many uppers
he hadn't slept much. He ate poorly, exercised not at all, and the live
performances, however listless, took what little he had.
Dr. Nick watched Elvis closely. For a long, long time -- more than two
years -- Elvis had been using drugs daily rather than periodically. His use
of them was now, in fact, rampant -- a runaway pattern that could lead to a
Elvis had nearly overdosed on several occasions. Linda Thompson recalls
times she found him unconscious or unable to get his breath. Red and Sonny
West tell of a time when a girl Elvis took to Palm Springs was hospitalized
after they'd spent an evening swilling Hycadan, a codiene cough syrup.
Elvis was an experimenter. Just as he wanted the newest automotive
extravagance, he wanted the latest drug. The best and newest on the
marketplace. Valium. Ethinamate. Dilaudid. Demerol. Percodan. Placidyl.
Dexedrine. Biphetamine. Amytal. Quaalude. Carbrital. Cocaine hydrochloride.
He had once turned to Red West's wife and said, "Pat, I've tried them all,
honey, and believe me, Dilaudid is the best." Dilaudid is a painkiller
usually given to terminal cancer patients.
Elvis regarded his many prescriptions as medicine. He had real problems --
pain, insomnia, a tendency toward obesity -- and he was taking real medicine
to take care of those problems. And that was it.
Except that wasn't it. Not all of it. He also knew that those drugs made
him feel good. Dilaudid was best. That one brought on the cushiony surfboard
ride, that friendly blotto that wiped out all the psychic injuries and
brought on a dreamy somnolence.
It was from a very peculiar position that Dr. Nick watched Elvis dry out
in the hospital, because he knew that the pills Elvis was so strung out on
had come from him. As early as January, Dr. Nick had become Elvis' primary
supplier. It wasn't greed or ego that put his small, white-haired physician
in that place. Up until January, Elvis had solicited his prescriptions from
dozens of doctors, stretching from Beverly Hills and Palm Springs to Elvis'
Graceland neighborhood. Dr. Nick, who had been one of them, figured that if
he could become his patient's only source, he could gain control and, with
time, wean Elvis off drugs completely.
But the quantity and variety Dr. Nick prescribed challenged all
credibility. Two years after Elvis' death, a computer check of prescriptions
issued in the Memphis area showed that in the final seven months of Elvis'
life, George Nichopoulos prescribed 5300 uppers, downers and painkillers for
Elvis. That's an average of about twenty-five pills or injectable vials a
Elvis checked himself out of the hospital after five days and went home,
where he resumed his routine of being given a packet of eight or nine pills
to go to sleep and another packet upon waking up.
If Elvis reflected on his recent years, he had much to be proud of. In
1968, after years spent hidden away in Hollywood making lightweight
musicals, he had climbed into a black leather suit and, in a single
television special, launched a comeback that really never stopped peaking.
His return to public performing in 1969 in Las Vegas and the following year
on the road were significant musical events. In 1971, he won the prestigious
Bing Crosby Award. In 1972, he filled Madison Square Garden for four shows
in a row, breaking all attendance and box-office records. In 1973, he gave
his Aloha From Hawaii satellite show, which reached a billion people; he won
a Golden Globe award for the documentary Elvis On Tour; and he won his first
Grammy (after nearly fifty albums and ninety singles) for his gospel LP, He
The awards and events came less frequently after that, but they came
nonetheless. And still the records sold and sold. Every year, it was his
name that appeared in The Guinness Book of World Records for selling more
records than any other artist in the history of recorded music.
If Elvis was in a reflective mood, he might also have looked back on more
than a thousand personal appearances in eight years. Where hadn't he been in
America during that time? Surely he must have visited everyone's hometown.
Perhaps that was what had made Elvis such a superstar.
The final week in Elvis' life was memorable only because it was the final
week. Elvis saw friends occasionally or talked on the telephone when they
called. He played racquetball in the court behind his house. He watched
gospel shows on television. He talked about the tour that was to begin on
June 17th in Maine. Ginger Alden [his last girlfriend] said they continued
to make wedding plans, claiming that he was going to make an announcement at
a concert in Memphis at the end of the tour. He read his Bible and his
numbers book. He ate his cheeseburgers and took his pills.
On August 14th, he started a fast, something he often did to lose weight
quickly before going on tour. Oddly, he didn't take any Ionamin, the
appetite suppressant he'd favored for so long. Perhaps he believed that
racquetball and fasting were enough. Besides, what difference did it really
make? At 250 pounds, he was grossly overweight, and how much could he lose
in two days?
On August 15th, he awoke at four p.m., and after breakfast played with his
daughter, Lisa, on the grounds, laughing as she ran around and around in her
In the early evening, Elvis called his dentist at home and asked if he and
Ginger could see him. Dr. Lester Hofman had been the recipient of Elvis'
generosity many times; he drove a Cadillac that Elvis had given him. He told
Elvis that 10:30 p.m. at his office would be fine.
Elvis arrived in his customized Stutz Bearcat with Ginger. Dr. Hofman had
never met Ginger. Elvis introduced her, using his pet nickname
"Gingerbread." After the dentist X-rayed her teeth, he filled two of Elvis'
teeth. As was the custom, the fillings were porcelain. Elvis had many
fillings and he didn't want a flash of gold when he opened his mouth to
Three hours passed. Back at Graceland, Elvis called Dick Grob, one of his
security men, and handed him a list of songs he decided to add to his
concert repertoire. He told Grob to locate the words and music and chord
changes for the new material so that he could brief the band before they
went on (and so he'd have the lyrics onstage in case he needed them). Grob
said that as he left the room, Elvis said, "We'll make this tour the best
By two or 2:30 a.m., Elvis had changed into a striped workout suit and was
on his racquetball court. Ginger hoped that playing would help Elvis relax
enough to fall asleep easily. Elvis called it quits about four a.m., and
after leisurely working out for a few minutes on an exercise cycle, he and
Ginger retreated to his bedroom.
Ginger soon fell asleep, leaving Elvis alone, reading a book on the bed
beside her. At nine, Ginger awoke to find Elvis still reading. He told her
he couldn't sleep and was going into the bathroom to read. Ginger knew that
meant he was going to take some of his medication. Elvis' syringes were in
the bathroom, and so was some of his personal pharmacy.
"Okay," Ginger said, "just don't fall asleep." With that, she rolled over
on the big bed and went back to sleep herself.
Elvis carried the book with him, his finger stuck into it as a marker. He
might have glanced at himself in the bathroom mirror. Blue pajamas. Puffy
eyes and face. Bad color. No one knows, but it's likely he helped himself to
something from his pharmacy, because as the autopsy would later show, he had
as many as ten different drugs coursing through his body, taking control of
his brain, his heart. Four of the drugs were in what the medical examiner
would describe as "significant amounts." These were codeine, ethinamate,
methaqualone and unidentifiable barbiturates. He had also taken a number of
Placidyl and Valium capsules, both tranquilizers, and unknown quantities of
Demerol and Meperidine, both painkillers. Bringing the amazing total to ten
were morphine and chloropheniramine, an antihistimine that by itself would
make its user sleepy.
Elvis sat staring at the open book in his lap, his eyes glassy, his body
motionless. His chin dropped to his chest, the big body slumped
imperceptibly then shifted and toppled out of the big cushiony chair, the
noise of the fall muffled by the brown shag carpeting.
The room was silent except for the sound of his final breath.
- Rolling Stone, 10/2/80
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